Facing up to a new world

30 May, 2008

Bordeaux struggles to assert a separate identity for each of

its 57 appellations . Throw

into that marketing dilemma 10,000 châteaux making

more than 700 million bottles

a year, and you've got a complicated image the region needs to

sell to the wine-swilling masses.

Ever since the Australian wine revolution in the mid-1980s, when the first modern Aussie wines hit retailers' shelves, producers across Europe were forced to wake up to the reality that a huge proportion of consumers wanted quaffable, fruit-forward wines. And it was branded wine - with its year-in-year-out consistency, striking label designs and big budget marketing - that fulfilled that need.

Some Bordeaux producers and UK importers squared up to the New World challenge: negociant brand Dourthe No 1 was created, Guy Anderson Wines launched Calvet and Baron Philippe de Rothschild released Mouton Cadet. But others stuck to the traditionalist approach -

private-label wines with pictures of grand châteaux dominating old-fashioned

designs.

Bordeaux's exports to the UK grew 12% by value and 11% by volume in the year to February, according to generic body the CIVB. But the Castel Group, the largest owner and winemaker in Bordeaux,

is calling on the region

to

ask itself whether the future of non-classed growth claret lies in generic brands or individual châteaux.

"We need to ask if châteaux are meeting British drinkers' expectations or confusing the British market. Is the future of Bordeaux brands or châteaux?" asks UK director Anne Burchett .

Castel confronted this question head-on with a debate attended by some of the wine industry's

key figures, in a bid to find out "where Bordeaux should go from now and how the region can drive the French category forward".

The panel, which included winemakers, buyers and wine writers, talked over Bordeaux's biggest challenges and key strengths, and came up with a number of key points the region needs to address as it faces the future.

Strengths and weaknesses

"Hard-to-decipher" labels are hampering traditional château wines, according to the panel.

Highlighting the region of origin but not the grape varieties has confused consumers who don't understand the AOC system -

especially young drinkers

who are more familiar with New World wine.

Wine writer Robert Joseph

advocates clearly labelled AOC varietal wines. "Why does Bordeaux have to concentrate on being complicated? Consumers need to know what it tastes like with grape varieties highlighted," he says.

Bordeaux should build up images of the châteaux behind the wine names because the château concept still resonates with consumers, says Douglas Morton, head of the

CIVB. "Château is the common denominator" for wines from Bordeaux, he says. The CIVB's la test ad campaign is geared towards promoting the "quality and heritage" of individual châteaux. Using the strapline Some Offer You Just A Drink, Others Offer You A Château, ads have run in national newspapers, women's magazines and on the London Underground.

Vintage variation "is the biggest problem for Bordeaux" , says winemaker John Worontschak, and it is one of the main restrictions to creating a generic branded offering .

Sainsbury's buyer Melissa Draycott says the region's image has been damaged by its red wines

"frequently being sold too young ".

AOC rules are still "restrictive", Draycott adds. Modern

winemaking in Bordeaux has evolved dramatically, but not far enough, she says.

"What has got to be allowed are some winemaking techniques from the New World. The wines still need to be made more approachable with techniques like micro-oxidation."

Put more focus on Sauvignon Blanc: despite being predominantly known for its red wines, Bordeaux has recently succesfully pushed its Sauvignon Blancs

- with producers making fresh, "zesty", unoaked wines, Draycott says. "We're seeing less Semillon and [producers] moving to what the customer wants."

White wine exports grew 14% by volume in the year to February, ahead of the region's sales as a whole , according to the CIVB.

Keep prices strong: while praising the brand-creation power of many producers and suppliers,

the panel saw an urgent need for more Bordeaux wines to increase their retail prices.

It's important that Bordeaux does not sell its generic brands at low price points, according to Joseph. "Bordeaux's not a place that should be producing cheap wines. Blason de Bourgogne does not make £3.99 wines; it's a premium product and the average price is relatively high. All of the bottom end of Bordeaux should be Vins de Pays de France - then we can focus on selling decent Bordeaux at £8.99 and more," he says.

Adopt more competitive tactics to boost sales: Draycott is calling for more promotional slots in the big multiples. "Sainsbury's has 17 million customers

per week. A big display with in-store POS and good deals of great-tasting wine that customers will want to drink will work for Bordeaux and give it credibility," she says. "There's a definite opportunity for Bordeaux to shout about itself more."

Asda's stuck on consumer-friendly labelling

Asda added three wines from Bordeaux to its Extra Special range last year during a review of

its own-label line-up.

It includes a 2006 Claret, 2006 Médoc and 2006 St Emilion, which are all sourced from producer GVG.

Wine buying manager Philippa Carr MW decided appellations would be the main focus of the trio's labels, rather than highlighting

grape varieties.

"Each wine is very typical of the region, it's a benchmark. Customers need a little bit of guidance as to what an appellation's classic style is

so they can explore the category further," she says.

Carr sees Bordeaux as a "potential minefield for consumers" because of the vast amounts of communes and châteaux, so it was decided to

"make things really simple".

Brand and deliver: the best way forward?

The future of Bordeaux lies not with generic brands or with promoting appellations, but in individual châteaux becoming brands, according to Guillaume Halley, owner of Château La Dauphine.

"Our property is in the Fronsac appellation, which, although well located next to St Emilion and Pomerol, is not well known internationally.

"Our strategy has been instead to build the renown of our brand over that of the appellation in which it lies," he says.

Halley's strategy has been to merge his two estates - Château La Dauphine and Canon de Brem - to ensure higher potential volumes and a simpler brand.

He has also redesigned the label and packaging "to create a simple, striking image", and introduced a second wine to reinforce

the message of quality.




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